Roger Lange files suit against Benton Harbor and Emergency Manager

Benton Harbor, Mich. A lawyer for suspended Director of Public Safety Roger Lange filed a suit against the City of Benton Harbor and Emergency Manager Tony Saunders Tuesday afternoon.

The suit claims Saunders fired two members of the Public Safety Department because of their race and then retaliated against Lange for reporting the action.

According to court documents, during a March 7 lunch with then Deputy Director of Public Safety, Robert O'Brien, Saunders told O'Brien "you know you can't be chief of police because you're white."

He also told O'Brien that Captain Dan McGinnis, a black man, was his "brother, and by brother I mean brother, brother." The suit goes on to state Saunders said McGinnis was "untouchable" and would be the next police chief.

After that meeting, the lawsuit claims O'Brien met with Lange to tell him about the comments Saunders made during the lunch meeting.

Court documents say the next day, Saunders called Lange and Captain of the Police Division, Dan Unruh, into a meeting during which he handed them new employment contracts.

According to the suit, in Lange's presence, Saunders told Unruh that "he could never be the police chief because he was the wrong color and that in case you didn't know it, you're not black."

At some point, Saunders told Lange he had to decide whether Unruh or O'Brien would be terminated. Lange told Saunders he needed both men because they were the "backbone" of the department and he could find other ways to save money.

But, the suit says Saunders told Lange he needed to cut $80,000 from the department and O'Brien or Unruh had to be fired to make budget.

Lange told Saunders again he could save that amount without firing the men. According to court documents, Saunders then said $80,000 wasn't enough to cut and the budget would instead have to be reduced by $142,000.

The suit says Saunders fired O'Brien on May 2 and Unruh on May 30.

After the terminations, McGinnis took over their responsibilities.

Lange wrote a letter to the Michigan State Treasurer and Governor detailing the actions of Saunders -- calling them "illegal and unethical." The letter claims the terminations of O'Brien and Unruh violated the Civil Rights Act. It states the men were fired not because of budget problems, but because of their race.

On June 25, Saunders held a police executive meeting with Lange and McGinnis. At the end of the meeting, Lange told Saunders about the letter he sent to the Governor and State Treasurer. He gave Saunders a copy of the letter and, according to the lawsuit, "Saunders became more and more angry and stated that this was the first time that he had been accused of being a racist."

Lange told Saunders he gave him the letter so he wouldn't be blindsided. Court documents allege Saunders denied making the racial comments but admitted calling McGinnis "his boy" and that McGinnis was the only untouchable one in the department.

The suit alleges Saunders then told Lange in a loud and intimidating voice to "get out of my office" before slamming the door so hard Lange thought it might have been damaged.

The lawsuit says Lange's actions were protected under the Whistleblower Protection Act, but Saunders discriminated against and threatened him for reporting Saunders.

Court documents also claim Lange was falsely suspended as Director of Public Safety for not undergoing firefighter training, which the suit claims was not a requirement of his contract.

When NewsCenter 16 tried contacting Saunders Tuesday, his secretary said he had no comment.

Lange's lawyer declined to comment, saying the court documents speak for themselves.

The suit seeks economic and emotional distress and exemplary damages, as well as attorney fees. It also asks Lange be reinstated to his position as Director of Public Safety.


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